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New Fund Pledges to Protect Cultural Heritage from War and Terror

Nations and philanthropists join together to safeguard one another’s priceless treasures

ISIS destroyed the Temple of Baalshamin in Syria in 2015. (University of Washington )
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A new fund aims to protect the world’s treasures from war and terror, and it's already raised $75.5 million, the AFP reports.

French President Francois Hollande announced the initial results of his fundraising efforts at an event at the Louvre on Monday, Florence Evin writes for Le Monde.fr. Donations from France, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Luxembourg, Morocco and Switzerland, along with a $1 million private donation from U.S. philanthropist Tom Kaplan, kicked off the fund. It will be called the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (ALIPH). The AFP writes that other countries will soon follow up on the initial donation, making good on a December pledge that brought 40 potential donor countries into the fold.

Hollande launched the fund at the two-day conference Safeguarding Endangered Cultural Heritage in Abu Dhabi last year. There, attendees discussed how to defend cultural heritage from war and terror—an issue made even more urgent by a recent spate of cultural devastation. The Islamic State’s destruction of cultural treasures in Syria and parts of Iraq has been called “the worst cultural heritage crisis since World War II”—and while Unesco has declared the destruction of places like the 3,000-year-old city of Nimrud a “war crime," the group can't stop terrorist groups and armed conflict from decimating precious sites.

The obliteration of this cultural heritage illustrates a "fanatical drive to erase people’s history and identity," explain Katharyn Hanson, an archaeologist and fellow at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Conservation Institute and Richard Kurin, Smithsonian’s acting provost and under secretary for museums and research and a founding member of the ALIPH board, in an op-ed about the destruction of cultural heritage sites for Smithsonian.com earlier this year.

But how can a pile of money protect heritage that doesn’t stand a chance against bombs, guns or terrorists intent on looting and smashing culture? The fund’s founders have some ideas. The Associated Press reports that they plan to attack the problem on multiple fronts. ALIPH will not only work to prevent destruction, restore destroyed sites and work to counter trafficking, reports the AP, but it also plans to use some of its money to fund a network of safe havens for cultural property. The idea is that the fund would allow threatened nations to temporarily store their treasures in other countries.

That’s a sore subject for some nations, writes the AFP—Greece and Egypt, both of which have fought for the return of cultural heritage looted and now stored in other nations, want safeguards built in so that countries participating know they’ll eventually have their treasures returned. France, which suggested the network, said it will take cues from how Spanish cultural heritage was handled just before the Spanish Civil War in 1936, reports The Art Newspaper’s Vincent Noce. In that case, cultural heritage was sandbagged, bricked or fortified and much of the country’s most valuable art was smuggled out of the country in a bid to protect it from the coming conflict.

Perhaps the new fund will manage to protect what’s still left, even as the public mourns what has already been lost. Because once cultural heritage is destroyed, it’s gone forever.

Editor's Note March 27, 2017: This story has been corrected to show that Unesco did not establish the new initiative. It was started by the French President, Francois Hollande.

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